Q: My Romneya coulteri shows this brown wilted growth every year. I planted it three or four years ago. It bloomed the first year but hasn’t bloomed since.
Kate Riley, Sacramento
A: According to UC master gardener Annie Kempees, Matilija poppy – also known as Romneya coulteri – is a member of the poppy family, Papaveraceae. It is a semi-evergreen herbaceous perennial and grows in all areas of California except high mountains and deserts. In spring and summer, tall stems reaching 6 to 10 inches high carry expansive blooms of white, crepe paperlike petals 6 to 12 inches wide, surrounding a crown of golden stamens. These distinctive flowers are often likened to giant fried eggs, hence giving the plant its nickname – “Fried Egg Flower.”
The blue-gray leaves are deeply cut. It grows in full sun to partial shade and is adaptable to most soils except those that are poorly drained.
When this shrub is established, it is drought-tolerant for cooler times of the year and will accept occasional water once a month during the dry season.
Matilija poppy is known as the queen of California wildflowers, though it is both finicky and aggressive in the garden. It is difficult to get established; too much water causes root rot and not enough before it’s established results in terminal wilt.
As it gains a foothold in the garden, the plant’s underground stems or rhizomes spread quickly in sandy, gravelly or rocky soil; those underground stems move more slowly through heavy loam or clay soil. Withhold summer irrigation to keep growth in check.
The wild growth of the Matilija poppy makes it a challenge in small gardens that are surrounded by plants with high water needs including turf. This plant will do reasonably well in larger gardens, along barely cultivated margins in dry areas, on slopes or beside parkways.
From late autumn to early winter, before the growth of new foliage, cut the plant back to 3- to 4-inch-long stubs to rejuvenate plants and encourage better blooms. Gardeners are advised to wear gloves during pruning as the stems and leaves are beset with prickles.
So why isn’t your poppy flowering? The photo of your shrub indicates that the poppy is near a light-colored wall where the sun’s heat reflects onto the plant. It is also next to a very green lawn, which usually indicates it may be receiving too much water.
Also, check to see if your soil is slow-draining as this may also contribute to the problem.
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